When the time comes for historians to reflect upon the Brexit epic, they won’t only struggle to define the end date – what Boris Johnson calls “getting Brexit done” – but also to fix its start date. Brexit was not born that early morning of 24 June 2016, when we woke up and discovered, flabbergasted, the result of the referendum. It all started much earlier, on 9 November 1989, the day the Iron Curtain was pulled down. Brexit is 30 years old.
The Berlin Wall was comfortable. For 30 years we became intellectually and politically attached to it. And not only those who, like me, had the immeasurable privilege to have fallen on the "good" side of it. President John F Kennedy spoke out about the wall at the time it was built in 1961. “It is not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war,” he said.
Thanks to the wall, a kind of order prevailed. It divided the world into two distinctive parts. It called out loud and clear an identifiable enemy. It offered us the welcome opportunity to whine about the European half which had been cut off. It put us in the position of waiting for global democracy, in the same way others wait for the messiah.
It allowed us to dream about reunifying west and east, ending the Cold War, about that common paradise in which liberal democracy would prevail over the last big totalitarian state.
And one day, we stopped dreaming; the wall fell.
Euphoria, however, was short-lived. Between 1961 and 1989, we spent almost 30 years expecting the fall of the wall. From 1989 to 2019, we’ve spent another three decades not knowing how to deal with it.
Without the wall in place, the world suddenly got complicated. The enemy multiplied; the binary turned out to be multipolar. New great powers emerged worldwide. We had to cope with reunifications: the German one, to start with, as East Germany was absorbed into the West to create a new country whose size undermined the European balance. It was not reassuring. Then there was the wider European reunification: the enlargement of the EU to the east – an ethical obligation as much as a source of discomfort and misunderstanding. We were misled to think that the eastern countries were seeking liberal democracy, when they were seeking only a national liberation from the oppression of the Soviet Union. We were misled to underestimate the loss of some of Europe's sense of its values and common identity.
As consumers, we gained enlarged markets and lower prices; as workers, we got lower wages and fewer jobs, here and there. The bigger Europe was frightening. For the right wing, because it broke the borders. For the left wing, because it broke the wages.
By destroying the wall, we built new walls – more invisible but very real – between east and west, north and south. And within European countries, between what David Goodhart, author of The Road to Somewhere, calls “the Anywheres” (mobile educated cosmopolitan citizens, fit to adapt to global changes) and “the Somewheres” (stuck to their local territory, the powerless victims of globalisation).
Dissatisfaction and resentment prevailed over the initial enthusiasm for democracy. Societies cracked. And last but not least, something emerged in 1989, so small that nobody then grasped the enormous issue it conveyed.
It would enhance access to knowledge, while undermining the functioning of democracy. It was named then by three mysterious letters, like a secret agent code: “WWW”. The World Wide Web. Internet. A prelude to social media. The beginning of the time when the distinction between true and fake vanished, when the trust for politicians, media and elites declined. In 1989, the Brexit countdown started.
The British voted to leave a European community they begged to join in 1973, from which they were granted many opt-outs, and which they had tailored themselves as a bespoke open market – the biggest in the world. Who were the keenest to build that huge 500-million-strong single market? The British. Who was pressing the most to enlarge the EU, instead of a more political, ever closer union, that others wanted? The British. And who then responded to this enlarged market by voting to leave? The British.
Brexit is a show of a legitimate anger and fear, but it is the wrong response to change. The EU is the most egalitarian region in the world, has the most efficient social welfare system and has made the greatest contribution to protecting the environment. The EU may not have protected us quite enough in the past against the social discord generated by the technological revolution of the early 1990s and the financial crash of 2008 or the migration crisis of 2015, but it did protect us – and it will continue to do so for the 27 countries that remain in the club. Interestingly enough, as polling shows, you still won’t find any nationalist European leader today, nor any majority of people in any other European country, who will say they would quit the EU.
Populists are artists who simplify complex issues and make people dream with words such as “leave”, “exit”, “take back control”. Who wouldn’t buy that? But the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. Nationalist populisms are the bad head experienced the morning after a drinking binge. Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Brexit is nothing but a bad hangover.
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